Two weeks had gone by and now Pa worked every evening after supper in his little office at the back of the store. He was making out the time-checks.
From the time-book he counted up the days each man had worked and figured how much he had earned. Then Pa figured up how much the man owed the store; to that he added the man’s board-bill at the cook-shanty. He subtracted that amount from the man’s wages and made out his time-check.
On payday Pa would give each man his time- check and the money due him.
Always before, Laura had helped Pa with his work. When she was very little, in the Big Woods, she had helped him make the bullets for his gun; in Indian Territory she had helped finish the house, and on Plum Creek she had helped with the chores and the haying. But she could not help him now, for Pa said that the railroad company would not want anyone but him to work in the office.
Still she always knew what he was doing, for the store was in plain sight from the shanty’s doorway and she saw everyone who came and went.
One morning she saw a fast team come dashing up to the store’s door, and a man in fine clothes got quickly out of the buggy and hurried into the store. Two more men waited in the buggy, watching the door and looking around them on every side as if they were afraid.
In a little while the first man came out and got into the buggy. After another look all around, they drove away quickly.
Laura ran out of the shanty toward the store. She was sure that something had happened there. Her heart was beating wildly, and it gave a great flop when she saw Pa, safe and sound, come out of the store.
“Where are you going, Laura?” Ma had called after her, and now Laura answered, “Nowhere, Ma.”
Pa came into the shanty and swung the door shut behind him. He took a heavy canvas bag out of his pocket.
“I want you to take care of this, Caroline,” he said. “It’s the men’s pay. Anybody that tried to steal it would come to the office.”
“I’ll take care of it, Charles,” Ma said. She wrapped the bag in a clean cloth and worked it deep into her open sack of flour. “Nobody’ll ever think of looking there for it.”
“Did that man bring it, Pa?” Laura asked. “Yes. That was the paymaster,” said Pa. “Those men with him were afraid,” Laura said. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. They were only guarding the paymaster to keep him from being robbed,” Pa said. “He’s carrying a good many thousand dollars in cash to pay all the men in the camps, and somebody might try to get it. But those men had guns enough on them and in the buggy. They had no need to be afraid.”
As Pa went back to the store, Laura saw the handle of his revolver showing from his hip pocket. She knew he was not afraid, and she looked at his rifle over the door and his shotgun standing in the corner. Ma could use those guns. There was no fear that robbers could get that money.
That night Laura woke up often, and often she heard Pa stirring too, in the bunk on the other side of the curtain. The night seemed darker and full of strange sounds, because that money was in the flour-sack. But no one would think of looking for it there, and no one did.
Early in the morning, Pa took it to the store. This was payday. After breakfast all the men gathered around the store, and one by one they went inside. One by one they came out again, and stood in little groups, talking. They would not work that day; it was payday.
At supper Pa said he must go back to the office again. “Some of the men don’t seem to under- stand why they got only two weeks’ pay,” he said. “Why don’t they get paid for the whole month?” Laura asked him.
“Well, you see, Laura, it takes time to make out all those time-checks and send them in, and then the paymaster has to bring out the money. I’m paying the men their wages now up to the fifteenth, and in another two weeks I’ll pay them up to now. Some of them can’t get it through their thick heads that they’ve got to wait two weeks for their pay. They want to be paid right up to yester- day.”
“Don’t fret about it, Charles,” said Ma. “You can’t expect them to understand how business is handled.”
“And they don’t blame you, do they, Pa?” said Mary.
“That’s the worst of it, Mary. I don’t know,” Pa answered. “Anyway, I’ve got some bookwork to do at the office.”
The supper dishes were soon washed, and Ma sat rocking Grace to sleep, with Carrie snuggled beside her. Laura sat beside Mary in the doorway, watching the light fade from the waters of the lake. She was seeing it out loud for Mary.
“The last light is shining pale in the middle of the smooth lake. All around it the water is dusky, where the ducks sleep, and the land is black beyond. The stars are beginning to twinkle in the gray sky. Pa has lighted his lamp. It shines out yellow from the back of the black store. Ma!” she cried out. “There’s a big crowd of men—look.”
The men were crowding around the store. They did not say anything, and there was not even any sound of their feet on the grass. Only the dark mass of men was growing larger very fast.
Ma rose quickly and laid Grace on the bed. Then she came and looked out over Laura’s head and Mary’s. She spoke softly. “Come inside, girls.”
When they obeyed her she shut the door, all but a crack. She stood looking out through the crack. Mary sat in the chair with Carrie, but Laura peeped under Ma’s arm. The crowd was close around the store. Two men went up the step and pounded on the door.
The crowd was quiet. The whole dusky twilight was quiet for a moment.
Then the men pounded again on the door and one called, “Open the door, Ingalls!”
The door opened, and there in the lamplight stood Pa. He shut the door behind him, and the two men who had knocked stepped backward in- to the crowd. Pa stood on the step with his hands in his pockets.
“Well, boys, what is it?” he asked quietly.
A voice came from the crowd. “We want our pay.”
Other voices shouted. “Our full pay!” “Come across with that two weeks’ pay you kept back!” “We’re going to get our pay!”
“You’ll have it two weeks from now, just as soon as I can get your time-checks made out,” said Pa.
The voices shouted again. “We want it now!” “Quit stalling!” “We’re going to have it now!”
“I can’t pay you now, boys,” Pa said. “I won’t have the money to pay you till the paymaster comes again.”
“Open up the store!” somebody answered. Then the whole crowd yelled. “That’s it! That’s good enough— Open the store! Open up that store!”
“No, boys. I won’t do that,” Pa said coolly. “Come in tomorrow morning, and I’ll let each man have all the goods he wants, on his account.” “Open up that store or we’ll open it for you!” came a shout. A growl rumbled from the crowd.
The whole mass of men moved in toward Pa as if that growl moved them.
Laura ducked under Ma’s arm, but Ma’s hand clenched on her shoulder and pulled her back.
“Oh, let me go! They’ll hurt Pa! Let me go, they’ll hurt Pa!” Laura screamed in a whisper.
“Be still!” Ma told her in a voice Laura had never heard before.
“Stand back, boys. Don’t crowd too close,” said Pa. Laura heard his cold voice and stood trembling.
Then she heard another voice behind the crowd. It was deep and strong, not loud, but plainly heard. “What’s up, boys?”
In the dark Laura could not see the red shirt, but only Big Jerry was so tall. He stood head and shoulders above the shadowy figures of the crowd. Beyond them in the dusk was a pale blur that would be the white horse. A confusion of voices answered Big Jerry, then he laughed. His laugh was big and booming.
“You fools!” Big Jerry laughed. “What’s the fuss about? You want the goods out of the store? Well, tomorrow we’ll take what we want of them. They’ll still be here. Nobody’ll stop us when we get started.”
Laura was hearing rough language. Big Jerry was using it. What he said was all mixed with swear words and with other words she had never heard. She hardly heard them now, because she felt all broken up; she felt as if everything was smashed like a dropped plate when Big Jerry took sides against Pa.
The crowd was all around Big Jerry now. He was calling some of the men by their names and talking to them about drinking and playing cards. Some of the crowd went with him toward the bunkhouse, then the rest of it broke into smaller pieces and scattered away in the dark.
Ma shut the door. “Bedtime, girls,” she said.
Laura went trembling to bed as Ma told her to do. Pa did not come. Now and then she heard an outbreak of loud, rough voices from the camp, and sometimes singing. She knew she would not sleep till Pa came.
Then her eyes opened suddenly. It was morning.
Beyond Silver Lake the sky was burning gold and one line of red cloud lay across it; the lake was rosy, and wild birds flew up clamoring. The camp was noisy too. All around the boarding shanty the men were gathered in a milling crowd, talking excitedly.
Ma and Laura stood outdoors at the corner of the shanty watching. They heard a shout and saw Big Jerry jump onto his white horse.
“Come on, boys!” he shouted. “All aboard for the fun!”
The white horse reared and whirled and reared again. Big Jerry gave a wild whoop, the white horse broke into a run, and away they went over the prairie toward the west. All the men rushed to the stable and in a minute man after man was on his horse and following Big Jerry. The whole crowd went streaming away on the horses and was gone.
A great, cool quietness came over the camp and over Laura and Ma. “Well!” Ma said.
They saw Pa walking from the store toward the boarding shanty. Fred, the foreman, came out of it and met him. They talked a minute. Then Fred went to the stable, got on his horse, and galloped away to the west.
Pa was chuckling. Ma said she did not know what there was to laugh about.
“That Big Jerry!” Pa’s laugh rang out. “By gum, if he didn’t lead ’em all away to do their devilment somewhere else!”
“Where?” Ma asked sharply.
Pa was sober then. “There’s a riot at Stebbins’ camp. Everybody’s flocking there from all the camps. You’re right, Caroline, it’s no laughing matter.”
All day the camp was quiet. Laura and Mary did not go for their walk. There was no telling what might be happening at Stebbins’ camp, nor when that dangerous crowd would come back. Ma’s eyes were anxious all day, her lips were tight, and now and then she sighed without knowing it.
After dark the men came. But they rode into camp more quietly than they had left it. They ate supper in the boarding shanty and then they went to bed in the bunkhouse.
Laura and Mary were still awake when Pa came late from the store. They lay quiet in their bunk and heard Pa and Ma talking beyond the lamplit curtain.
“Nothing to worry about now, Caroline,” Pa said. “They’re tired out and everything’s quiet.” He yawned and sat down to take off his boots.
“What did they do, Charles? Was anybody hurt?” Ma asked.
“They strung up the paymaster,” said Pa. “And one man was hurt bad. They put him in a lumber wagon and started back east with him to find a doctor. Don’t get so upset, Caroline. We better thank our stars we got off so easy. It’s all over.”
“I don’t get upset till it is over,” Ma said. Her voice was shaking.
“Come here,” said Pa. Laura knew that now Ma was sitting on Pa’s knee. “There, I know you don’t,” he said to her. “Never mind, Caroline. The grading’s pretty near done, these camps’ll be closing down and gone before long, and next summer we’ll be settled on the homestead.”
“When are you going to pick it out?” said Ma. “Quick as the camps close. I don’t have a minute away from the store till then,” said Pa.
“You know that.”
“Yes, I know, Charles. What did they do about the men that—killed the paymaster?”
“They didn’t kill him,” Pa said. “It was this way. You see, it’s the same at Stebbins’ camp as here; the office is a lean-to at the back of the store. It has one door into the store and that’s all. The paymaster stayed in the office with the money and kept the door locked. He paid the men through a little opening beside the door.
“Stebbins has got over three hundred- and fifty-men drawing pay there, and they wanted their pay up to now, like the men here wanted it. When they got paid only to the fifteenth, they acted ugly. Most of them wear guns, and they were in the store, threatening to shoot up the place unless they got their full pay.
“In the melee, a couple of men got to quarreling and one of them hit the other over the head with the weight from the scales. He dropped like a struck ox, and when they dragged him out into the air, they couldn’t bring him back to his senses. “So, the crowd started out with a rope, after the man that hit him. They trailed him easy enough into the slough, and then they couldn’t find him in the high grass. They threshed around looking for him through that slough grass taller than their heads, till I guess they’d ruined any trail he’d left. “They kept on hunting him till past noon, and lucky for him they didn’t find him. When they got back to the store, the door was locked. They couldn’t get in. Somebody had loaded the hurt man into a wagon and headed back east to look for a doctor.
“By this time men were piling into the place from all the other camps. They ate everything they could get hold of in the boarding shanty and most of them were drinking. They kept pounding on the store door and yelling to the paymaster to open up and pay them, but nobody answered.
“A crowd of near a thousand drunken men is an ugly thing to deal with. Somebody caught sight of that rope and shouted, ‘Hang the pay- master!’ The whole crowd took it up and kept on yelling, ‘Hang him! Hang him!’
“A couple of men got on top of the lean-to roof and tore a hole in the shingles. They left the end of the rope dangling over the edge of the roof and the crowd grabbed hold of it. The two fellows dropped down onto the paymaster and got the noose around his neck.”
“Stop, Charles. The girls are awake,” said Ma. “Pshaw, that’s all there is to it,” Pa said. “They
hauled him up once or twice, is all. He gave in.” “They didn’t hang him?”
“Not enough to hurt much. Some of the crowd was breaking down the store door with neckyokes, and the storekeeper opened it. One of the fellows in the office cut the rope and let the pay- master down and opened up the pay-window and the paymaster paid every man what he claimed was due him. A good many men from the other camps crowded in and drew pay, too. There wasn’t any bothering with time-checks.”
“Shame on him!” Laura cried out. Pa drew back the curtain. “What did he do it for? I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t!” she went on before Pa or Ma could say a word. There she was, sitting up on her knees in bed, her fists clenched.
“You wouldn’t what?” said Pa.
“Pay them! They couldn’t make me! They didn’t make you!”
“That mob was bigger than ours. And the pay- master didn’t have Big Jerry to help him,” said Pa.
“But you wouldn’t have, Pa,” Laura said. “Sh!” Ma hushed them. “You’ll wake Grace.
I’m thankful the paymaster was sensible. Better a live dog than a dead lion.”
“Oh, no, Ma! You don’t mean that!” Laura whispered.
“Anyway, discretion is the better part of valor.
You girls go to sleep,” Ma murmured.
“Please, Ma,” Mary whispered. “How could he pay them? Where did he get the money, when he’d already paid out what he had?”
“That’s so, where did he?” Ma asked.
“From the store. It’s a big store and it had already taken in most of what the men had been paid; they spend as fast as they get,” said Pa. “Now mind your Ma, girls, and go to sleep.” He let the curtain fall.
Very softly under the quilt Mary and Laura talked until Ma blew out the lamp. Mary said she wanted to go back to Plum Creek. Laura did not answer that. She liked to feel the great wild prairie all around the little shanty. Her heart beat strong and fast; she could hear in her mind again the savage fierce sound of that crowd’s growl and Pa’s cold voice saying, “Don’t crowd too close.” And she remembered the sweating men and sweating horses moving strongly through clouds of dust, building the railroad in a kind of song. She did not want ever to go back to Plum Creek.[/sociallocker]